Political repression and criminal trials

By Lennert Breuker

A few days ago Reuters reported that Paul Rusesabagina, the man so famously depicted in the movie ‘Hotel Rwanda’ as the hotel manager who saved many from falling victim to the génocidaires, is suspected by the Rwandan authorities of funding terrorist activities. Actually, the terrorist activities for which opposition leader Victoire Ingabire is currently being held for. Ingabire is also being held on charges of ‘genocidal ideology’, a questionable legal provision which allows for the prosecution of statements in which the genocide is denied or nuanced, and which seems to be used predominantly to attack the political opposition. I have also posted briefly on the arrest of Ingabire’s attorney, Peter Erlinder, for similar charges. He has been released in the meantime, but it seems that the pattern of harassment continues. Rusesabagina has criticised the Rwandan government over recent years and accused the government of conducting a smear campaign against him in response of the latest charges.


"It is the latest step in a campaign against me by the Rwandan government that has included public insults from the president himself, lies and physical harassment," he said.

"I’m not a man of violence… But anyone who opposes Kagame is treated with this kind of harassment."

Disturbing as this policy of political repression is, it is still very much in the open. Perhaps this is because Rwanda is still in the public eye a good decade after the atrocities as the ICTR is still conducting trials and Rwanda is being monitored by the NGO community. In Cambodia matters may have been less visible in the late 1980’s. There was no highly publicised UN criminal tribunal, and the perhaps less sizeable NGO community could not yet count on internet as the source of global mobilisation it is nowadays. But already in 1987 Amnesty International released a condemning report on large scale and severe torture of political prisoners in custody by the Cambodian government. Reports of harassment of and (lethal) violence towards political opponents have persisted thereafter.

Although the UN ultimately succeeded in its insistence on a tribunal which would prosecute the atrocities committed during 1975-1979, political repression remains a constant feature of Cambodian politics. Similar to Rwanda, also in Cambodia defamation and anti-corruption laws are being used to harass political opponents and critical journalists. Legal practitioners – particularly human rights advocates –  are often subject to intimidation or attacks. A new law is expected that will increase the government’s hold on NGO’s, some of which had stepped into the vacuum where the leftish political opposition used to operate. 

In such a repressive climate, it seems artificial to even speculate about the more abstract positive effects of criminal trials on a society in transition. When a(n effective) rule of law is absent, when political opponents are repressed, what standard of norms is society supposed to internalise that stems from the prosecutions of perpetrators of international crimes? Similar scepticism should apply to concepts as accountability, the fight against impunity and justice in a broad sense. 

So where does this leave a liberal’s hope for ‘progress’, contentious as the term may be? Perhaps the respective development of Germany and Japan as States that adhere to a genuine rule of law, set in solid democratic political constellations, have raised false expectations. The current governments of Rwanda and Cambodia welcome or merely condone the trials, as it is politically convenient for them to do so. In Rwanda it solidifies the horror committed by the (former) enemies of the current government and in a sense reinforces its legitimacy. In Cambodia only the clique who stayed loyal to Pol Pot stands trial. Besides military opponents of current Prime Minister Hun Sen, which they became after he left the Khmer Rouge to return with the Vietnamese army which drove Pot Pot back into the jungle, they also became political opponents in the 90’s when a political rival of Hun Sen wanted to assimilate the still rebelling Khmer Rouge leaders into his party. 

Perhaps matters are not unavoidable. Possibly the UN missed out on an opportunity by allowing Hun Sen a prominent role in Cambodian politics even though he had lost the elections in 1993 but threatened with renewed civil war. And perhaps the Rwandan government can still be kept at bay by cohesive international pressure. I do not have any kind of answer to my own question, but scenario’s such as Rwanda and Cambodia are bound to re-occur in the context of the ICC framework, where State cooperation is equally vital to its functioning, and where there are few alternatives but to offer compromises in order to obtain cooperation. With all kinds of consequences.   

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